What does this space know?

Some thoughts from Rupert Meese

Deeply Felt Community

Posted by Rupert Meese on September 11, 2009

Unstone Grange

Unstone Grange

I’ve just got back from a week at Unstone Grange, a large old ramshackle house in Derbyshire that was host to this year’s “Facilitating Ourselves”. Six days of community building using the model laid out by M. Scott Peck in his book “The Different Drum”. I want to answer straight away the question “what is community building (sounds a bit dull)?” The condensed answer is that community building is the attempt to create a community of people without compromising their individually. This does indeed sound a bit dull, but how you get there, and what happens when you do is absolutely crackling. It is singly the toughest most uncomfortable, most demanding and most deeply satisfying activity that I have ever been part of.

“MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES,
BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS,
CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOR AND
RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS.”

As the possibly apocryphal ad’ for Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition runs.

There were nineteen of us at Unstone Grange. Nineteen individuals with 189 relationships between us. Many of those relationships were already well established, many were completely new. All were forged fresh over those six days.

Our ordinary notion of a community is a group tied together by a common ideal. That the ideal bonds the community is normally key. Each individual submits to whatever the community ideal is, and, to the extent that the ideal is loose and undemanding, then the individual keeps much of their identity but is only loosely bonded with the community. If the ideal is vigorous and demanding then the community is strong but the individual must submit much of their identity in order to belong. And example of this might be a cult where there are accusations from outside of brain washing as the individuality of the cult members is subjugated to the ideals of the group’s leader. So what happens when there is no common ideal to submit to in the name of community? Chaos? Actually, yes, at first. For one thing there can’t be a leader. A leader, a benign dictator, could only create a binding ideal. The only commitment from members in this kind of community building is the commitment to not withdraw. To stay in the group, in the circle. There are facilitators in the group, it is their job to hold the group as it struggles to find it’s way to community. The only thing is the job of the facilitators is almost exclusively silence. So, a leaderless group with no clear ideal. Thankfully there are guidelines to help. The group meets in a circle for ninety minutes at a time, twice a day, the instructions are: to speak only when moved to speak; to speak in “I statements” rather than generalizations, for example “I’m annoyed” rather than “you are annoying” and to be specific not general such as “my divorce was awful” rather than “divorce is an awful thing.” Of course with no leaders these guidelines are often broken and it becomes down to the group to address that. I say it’s down to the group, but this brings up an important aspect of community building. When all individuality is fully respected there is no one left to speak for you. No one to represent your interests because only you have your interests. The difficult and painful thing is that you have to do it for yourself. If you don’t like it that those guidelines are broken then there is only you who can say so. So, it is often chaos in the circle, but when the chaos is allowed to run, as it has to be, at least two things happen. The first is that members of the community start to hear each other, start to sense each other as individuals. The second is that eventually everyone fully realizes that they are lost. Lost or stuck. Once that happens something else takes over, Maybe attempts to organise, or rescue each other, but these are doomed and run themselves out. Eventually a stillness settles, and community maybe, just maybe, community starts. It’s difficult to say what that means but you can tell when it happens. Someone speaks into the silence and shares from their heart. There are no attempts to patch it up, make it better or change it all. Life, after all, is seldom so simple as to be fixed by sage advice from someone across the room from you. Rather the space opens to that person who spoke and reaches up to greet them. All attention is with them, all hearts are present. You can simply feel it in the room. Someone will speak after them, and in some magical way, what they say is a response to the gift that has just been given and the whole group grows. When it works, community heals like a group waiting at the bedside of a Victorian fever patient. Waiting and hoping and willing towards health in a shared vigil that is both helpless and powerful beyond measure. Am I being clear? Can you imagine that? Eighteen unique individuals, all of whom you know and love for the pain that they have shared, waiting at the bedside of your darkest fear and longing? It is quite a remarkable thing to be part of.

Outside of the circle, in which we spend three hours each day, there are the ‘small groups’ and ‘open space workshops’, as well as cooking and tidying and time to relax or play. The small groups are groups of three or four, allocated at the beginning, who meet together for support. A kind of mini community. My group was a beautiful godsend to me. We met in the ‘Cedar Room’, a bedroom with three beds, and so our small group always had a little of a dorm-room feel about it. I shared it with three remarkable people who I loved and who showed me the most astounding commitment and courage in working through my stuff with me. They were a real strength to me and the source of some very special friendships. When it’s our turn to cook we spend three hours dancing madly about in the kitchen to Queen and serve our gorgeous vegan curry dressed in drag and with “I want to be free” blasting out.

Open space had a great range of workshops put on by the participants from Hakomi to men’s groups. I ran a Grovsian Clean Space workshop, taking the group through James Lawley and Penny Tompkin’s newly structured Clean Space Light process. It’s one that has just recently been refined in the Symbolic Modelling developing group. Evenings we spent story telling, playing games or talking around the fire…

It’s hard to convey the mixture of joy and struggle that all of this entails. F*** this is hard, is one common remark in the breaks. Another more eloquent in the circle is “it’s such a risk. God, It is such a risk.” And we do take the risk, often we do take the risk of being ourselves, in our glorious broken imperfection. And sometimes we are met with such love and compassion, and sometimes we hurt each other or confuse each other or loose each other. And this is where the true glory is: because of that one commitment not to withdraw, even in all that, we do not damage each other. We stay with it and work through the pain and confusion. Or we come back to it, or we find a way. And what results is so profound and so rare and so valuable that I don’t think there is a name for it.

Like Shackleton in the end I don’t think we were successful. Not in creating and sustaining community, but we came pretty damn close. We had moments and moments of extreme beauty, and pure joy. We were witness to life striving towards the light, struggling to express itself. We submitted ourselves to our own lives as bravely as we were able. We fought hard for each other, and when time ripped us apart again at the end of six days, the cry in the circle of “I will not let this end well, I refuse to end it well” was the one that moved my heart.

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One Response to “Deeply Felt Community”

  1. suzie said

    I want to see a repeat performance of “I want to break free”!! x

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